On Chapel Sands
Mr B's review
Laura Cumming’s mother Betty made the headlines when, as a 3 year old in 1929, she was kidnapped whilst playing on the beach at Chapel Sands. Betty was recovered safe and sound days later, but the whole episode was shrouded in mystery and the local community clammed up. Laura has used her mother’s own recollections and some extensive research to piece together the story of Betty’s blighted childhood, which reads like a tightly plotted thriller.
**Shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award 2019**
**SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER**
‘A modern masterpiece’ Guardian
Uncovering the mystery of her mother’s disappearance as a child: Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, takes a closer look at her family story.
In the autumn of 1929, a small child was kidnapped from a Lincolnshire beach. Five agonising days went by before she was found in a nearby village. The child remembered nothing of these events and nobody ever spoke of them at home. It was another fifty years before she even learned of the kidnap.
The girl became an artist and had a daughter, art writer Laura Cumming. Cumming grew up enthralled by her mother’s strange tales of life in a seaside hamlet of the 1930s, and of the secrets and lies perpetuated by a whole community. So many puzzles remained to be solved. Cumming began with a few criss-crossing lives in this fraction of English coast – the postman, the grocer, the elusive baker – but soon her search spread right out across the globe as she discovered just how many lives were affected by what happened that day on the beach – including her own.
On Chapel Sands is a book of mystery and memoir. Two narratives run through it: the mother’s childhood tale; and Cumming’s own pursuit of the truth. Humble objects light up the story: a pie dish, a carved box, an old Vick’s jar. Letters, tickets, recipe books, even the particular slant of a copperplate hand give vital clues. And pictures of all kinds, from paintings to photographs, open up like doors to the truth. Above all, Cumming discovers how to look more closely at the family album – with its curious gaps and missing persons – finding crucial answers, captured in plain sight at the click of a shutter.
‘A moving, many-sided human story of great depth and tenderness, and a revelation of how art enriches life’ Sunday Times
“On Chapel Sands is much more than a search for truth. It is a moving, many-sided human story of great depth and tenderness, and a revelation of how art enriches life. In short, a masterpiece” — John Carey * Sunday Times * “Cumming skilfully withholds key twists in the tale, revealing them at just the right moment. There are surprises, but no shocks. Her prose is too elegant for such gaudiness – composed and restrained but empathetic” — Leaf Arbuthnot * The Times * “Brilliant… This book is a love letter to her [Cumming’s] mother, whose warmth, articulacy and survival instincts shine though. It’s also an intimate portrait of a village community, with its storybook characters (butcher, baker, dairyman, bell-ringer, gravedigger) and their wonderful old-fashioned names” — Blake Morrison * Guardian * “By turns beautiful, wistful, and ominous… the reasons behind the kidnap, and the repurcussions, are every bit as complex as any served up by fiction, and, oddly enough, the denouement — or succession of denouements — is just as satisfying, perhaps more so… a meditation on the way some people disappear, and time erases memory… so familiar as to be universal, and will probably ring bells with all but the sunniest reader (***** Five Stars)” — Craig Brown * Mail on Sunday * “A deeply felt, forensic yet ultimately empathetic examination of human motivation and its attendant sorrows, which is as much a social history of the early 20th century as it is the story of one family and its secrets… [Cumming’s] intermeshing of art, time and memory is superlative… The repercussions are interrogated by Cumming with a hungry precision up to her last, revelatory pages” — Catherine Taylor * Daily Telegraph * “On Chapel Sands is a mystery solved through empathy and interpretation. It feels as if this is the book Cumming has been working towards, a deeply personal story but one that also draws on practised skills as a critic and a writer. It is perfectly balanced between the requirements of its narrative and the expression of its author’s passions. It is a moving tribute from a daughter to her parents and grandparents. It is beautifully written” — Andy Miller * Spectator * “Unputdownable… this memoir-cum-detective story becomes a remarkable search for truth” — Charlotte Cox * Sunday Telegraph * “A fascinating, beautifully written feat of detective work, evoking bygone Britain during an era when so much was left unsaid” — Charlotte Heathcote * Daily Mail, *Book of the Week* * “A poetic blend of memoir and detective story… Cumming breathes new life into the form, with her art critic’s analysis of the family photographs which appear on many of the pages” — Marcus Field * Evening Standard * “On Chapel Sands is a fascinating read, as painstaking as an archaeological dig. Laura carefully sifts through years of fact, speculation and omission until the truth comes to light” — Eithne Farry * Sunday Express * “Wonderful, haunting… a poetic study in half-lights and fragments… a moving meditation… It is intimate and yet, at a slant, draws in a larger web of moments beyond the limits of the frame” — Lucy Lethbridge * Literary Review * “This is a clear-eyed and careful portrait of a family unravelling that stands out for the way in which it considers what isn’t being shown as much as what is” — Sarah Hughes * i * “Gripped from the sure-footed imagery of the opening sentence… the fragmentary style of the book gives way to a more lyrical tone… The lyricism of her relationship with images…is this book’s greatest gift” — Raffaella Barker * Oldie * “This utterly enthralling family memoir draws you into a mystery from the childhood of the author’s mother… spellbinding… [Cumming] has also woven in photographs and artworks, which beautifully illuminate and complement the narrative” — Caroline Sanderson * The Bookseller * “A modern masterpiece” * Guardian, *Summer Read of 2019* * “An outstanding investigation into a family’s secrets and a revelation of how art enriches life” * Sunday Times, *Summer Reads of 2019* * “There can be no more gripping read than Observer art critic Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands… Nothing is as it seems right up to the last page of this modern masterpiece” — James Le Fanu * Tablet, *Summer reads of 2019* * “Its pleasures are slow, cumulative and utterly absorbing, it would be the perfect choice for a holiday with long stretches of reading time… A wonderful meditation on the half-truths and half-lights that make up our understanding of a life” — Lucy Lethbridge * Tablet, *Summer reads of 2019* * “An absolute masterpiece. A book bursting with love – love lost and love found, love misunderstood, unsaid and denied. I was spellbound by Laura Cumming’s warm, intelligent, searching voice and her intense scrutiny of images to reveal the unexpected and make us think again. I am in complete awe. A beguilingly lovely book – as big as the sea” — Keggie Carew, author of Dadland “An absolutely utterly transfixing narrative which I could hardly bear to leave in order to go to sleep at night and which I could not wait to wake up to in the morning, writing of such sublime beauty that I delighted in page after page, and above all a story of such emotional power, not only about Laura’s mother, but also about Laura herself, that sometimes I found myself putting my copy down just to take a moment to breathe”
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